Masha Gessen

On November 6th, 2018, Masha Gessen spoke at Miami University in a lecture entitled “An Evening with Masha Gessen.” Gessen’s talk centered around the ways in which Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Putin lie and how the two politicians’ processes of lying to the public reconstitute and reconstruct truth.

Gessen said that, as a veteran New Yorker columnist, they had a head start in studying Trump’s lying because of their experience writing about Russian politics and Putin’s tactics. Gessen described the politicians’ discourse as “sense of turning reality into mush” and likened their own understanding of both politicians to wearing a “pair of special glasses.”

Gessen said that Trump and Putin’s methods of lying are different than how most politicians and most people lie. Most people, Gessen said, lie to make listeners believe that something isn’t true is true; the more believable the lie, the better it works. For Trump and Putin, however, lying is the message; both men lie to assert power over reality itself. “The more outrageous the lie,” Gessen said, “the better it works.” Gessen said that Trump’s repeated lies affirm his power to not only voice lies, but force news consumers — and the media — to engage with them. As a result, Gessen said, Trump has excellent instincts for controlling language and discourse.

In addressing similarities and differences between the ways in which Trump and Putin lie, Gessen said that the two men sound very different when they talk — Trump’s speech patterns resemble blathering while Putin sounds very competent and precise; he showers people with facts, figures, even though they turn out to be false or wildly exaggerated. However, the effect is very similar for both men; the “truth” becomes fuzzy and hazy, evoking confusion. Gessen said both Trump and Putin use words to mean their opposite, using Trump’s categorization of the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” as an example. A witch hunt, Gessen explained, can only be perpetrated by someone who has power against someone who does not. Therefore, they said, it is impossible for Trump to be the subject of a witch hunt; he is in a position of power as the President of the United States.

Gessen said both Trump and Putin display hostility to government. Trump, Gessen said, often dissociates himself from “the government,” acting as though executive responsibility were always elsewhere — even though, as president, he himself is the government and holds a lot of responsibility for the issues he discusses. This is particularly paradoxical considering the nature of American politics, Gessen said, because the president is generally elected by the American electorate to take responsibility. Gessen added that Trump and Putin share a disdain for politics —  as have populists throughout history.

Gessen then raised the question of what journalists should do in dealing with the lies of Putin and Trump. However, Gessen said, the problem is that there’s no good answer — Putin and Trump’s methods actually constitute a trap for media. Ultimately, Gessen argued, there is no way to cover a politician like Trump in a good way. However, they said, there are worse ways and better ways to do so, and journalists can know what the wrong thing to do is. One wrong thing to do is act in a way that augments evil; every time journalists deal with a Trumpian lie, they should examine whether they are augmenting a lie by engaging with it. However, Gessen said, journalists cannot just pretend that Trump doesn’t exist because doing so would declare an exit from politics.

If there’s any silver lining in the crisis Trump has created for the media, Gessen said, it is that it could lead to the discussion of why our society places so much importance on the media as a profit-making enterprise. Currently, media organizations emphasize the “number of clicks” on each article; this problem is expressed in editorial decisions all the time, Gessen said. As a result, the dynamic of competition in the modern media market is not driven by public interest, but instead by profit.